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St. Louis Police Investigate Officers’ Shootings — and Never Reveal Results to Oversight Board 

St. Louis police block protesters on Sept. 15, 2017, after ex-police officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty of murder.

THEO WELLING

St. Louis police block protesters on Sept. 15, 2017, after ex-police officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty of murder.

This story was published in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in the U.S.

The St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board was founded in 2015 as a check on police power in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. But despite more than 50 police shootings in the city over the last five years, the police department hasn’t provided the board materials to review a single case.

As a result, the oversight board has been unable to fulfill one of its most critical responsibilities, and the one that precipitated its founding: to prevent the department from mishandling investigations of police violence.

“In five years' time, we’ve got nothing,” said Kimberley Taylor-Riley, the board’s commissioner. The delay in concluding investigations, she continued, “has completely thwarted [the board’s] process.”

The police department, in a written response, declined to offer an explanation for the delays, but said that “all the cases [the department has] reviewed have been turned over to the Circuit Attorney’s Office.” The Circuit Attorney’s Office did not reply to multiple requests for comment about the status of these reports.

The city’s April 6 mayoral election has the potential to unstop the civilian review pipeline, according to activists interviewed for this story. Current Mayor Lyda Krewson has chosen not to run for reelection, and both of her potential successors — Alderwoman Cara Spencer and city Treasurer Tishaura Jones — have promised ambitious criminal justice reforms. Whoever wins the election will have the chance to appoint a new director of the Department of Public Safety, which oversees both the Civilian Oversight Board and the police department.

John Chasnoff, who co-founded Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, a local police accountability nonprofit, said that new leadership “is more likely to make change than anything else.” He added that the mayor could help shepherd amendments to the Civilian Oversight Board’s founding ordinance through the Board of Aldermen. He and other activists in the city have argued that housing the Civilian Oversight Board and the police department under the same city agency creates conflicts of interest.

In response to questions about how she will address the city’s civilian review process, a spokesperson for Spencer’s campaign shared a press release detailing her police reform plan. The plan does not specifically address the delayed police shooting investigations but notes that the city’s civilian review process “will be reviewed for further actions and increased accountability and effectiveness.”

A spokesperson for Jones’s campaign said they were aware of the delays at the police department and said that all shootings involving the department “need to be investigated by independent teams of investigators.” They added that the department’s internal affairs division has exploited a loophole in the ordinance that established the Civilian Oversight Board to avoid sharing hundreds of civilian complaints with the board. “With a Mayor and a Director of Public Safety dedicated to accountability and transparency, we can remedy this issue and give COB the power and resources to do their jobs,” the spokesperson said.

Activists outside of St. Louis police headquarters on Sept. 17, 2017, protest police killings following the acquittal of ex-St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, who was charged with murder. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Activists outside of St. Louis police headquarters on Sept. 17, 2017, protest police killings following the acquittal of ex-St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, who was charged with murder.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department leads the nation in killings by officers. An analysis conducted by ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy nonprofit, found that the department contributed to 18 deaths per million residents, roughly four times the rate of police killings in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. The vast majority of these killings happen by gunfire. Since 2015, St. Louis police have fatally shot 27 residents — 22 of whom were Black — and injured many others, according to police shooting data from The Washington Post and Fatal Encounters. According to the department, St. Louis police opened investigations into 55 officer-involved shootings between 2015 and the end of 2020.

The Civilian Oversight Board is supposed to provide a check on this violence. The seven-member board is composed of mayoral appointees who have been confirmed by the city’s Board of Aldermen. In addition to investigating civilian complaints and reviewing internal affairs reports of officer misconduct, the board has a specific responsibility to review the police department’s internal investigations of officer-involved shootings. If it determines that an investigation was not conducted thoroughly, the board has legal authority to order police to gather additional evidence, or it can send an independent team of investigators to collect it. Once the board is satisfied with its findings, it can issue recommendations to the police chief about changes the department should make to prevent future shootings and can make its findings public so that community residents are aware of department misconduct.

But a lengthy and convoluted internal review process — clogged by infighting between the police department and the city’s circuit attorney — has prevented the board from reviewing any shootings, leaving many city residents who’ve had loved ones killed or injured by police violence uncertain about whether officers had exhausted all necessary options before using force.

“When the process isn’t transparent, it leaves a wound that will remain open because you don’t feel like everything was done fairly,” said Carlos Ball, the brother of Cary Ball, who was killed by St. Louis police in 2013. Cary had finished a shift in the laundry room of Mercy Hospital St. Louis and was driving a colleague home when police stopped his car. Cary fled on foot, and after a short pursuit, officers shot Cary 21 times. Officers claimed he had pointed a Glock pistol in their direction. But civilian witnesses disputed this characterization; at least one said Cary was tossing the gun away when police opened fire.

The Civilian Oversight Board did not exist in 2013, and an FBI review of the department’s investigation into the shooting concluded that the officers involved were justified. But no agency outside of law enforcement had an opportunity to review the department’s investigation. Without civilian review, Carlos said, “it is a completely one-sided scale of justice.”

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